The Art of Aubrey Beardsley:
A Fin de Siecle Critique of Victorian Society
by Erin Smith
In the late Victorian period, many English, among other Europeans, were beginning to question the benefits of the rapid change and industrialization which characterized most of the nineteenth century. As a result, the Victorian value system and social order, which fit in so well with industrial capitalism, came under attack. In England by the late 1880’s, although much of the mainstream art and literature still upheld Victorian values and social order, an avant-garde movement of artists and writers began to criticize and satirize Victorian society. Aubrey Beardsley was an illustrator who took part in this movement, and became known in the larger context of Art Nouveau. In criticizing Victorian society, Beardsley focused on the sexual sphere. He was fully aware that challenges to Victorian values came not only from the avant-garde, but from the Women’s Movement, which by the 1880’s, had made some gains in the areas of education and economic rights. Through his bizarre and symbolic style, Beardsley’s drawings blur gender lines and mock male superiority. They also play on Victorian anxieties about sexual expression and men’s fear of female superiority. The phrase Fin de Siecle came from the title of a French play, and became a popular expression which symbolized the mood in England from the 1870’s to the turn of the century. During this time, Britain was a power in decline. Economically, the industrial middle class was feeling strain from the “great depression” of the 1880’s and increasing foreign competition in trade. Victorian notions of authority were also being threatened by extended franchise, and the Irish demand for home rule. These factors helped to create a mood of pessimism which influenced cultural life.
In the cultural sphere, many intellectuals feared that Victorian society had become static. Matthew Arnold, expressed this fear in Culture and Anarchy (1869), arguing that the point of culture is “not having a resting, but a growing and a becoming.” In the 1880’s, many avant-garde artists and writers challenged the mainstream Victorian art scene which they considered static and outmoded. This reaction became manifest in the so-called “Decadent” art movement which exhibited an extreme expression of Fin de Siecle pessimism.
During the period of the “Decadence” (1880-1900), artists and writers reacted against high Victorian values. The Decadents preferred pessimism to optimism, the decayed to the living, the abnormal to the normal, and the artificial to the natural. As avantgarde artists, they were constantly engaged in a search for the new. In society, they looked to the “New Woman” and the “new hedonism,” and culturally, there was “new drama” and Art Nouveau. They were influenced by the aestheticism of the 1870’s whose slogan was “art for art’s sake,” where art was appreciated solely for its intrinsic pleasure. This contrasts with the Victorian utilitarian concept of art, where art does not exist merely for pleasure’s sake, but must serve some higher purpose. Victorians also attached a moral dimension in judging artistic merit, and felt that only a good person can create good art. In reaction to this idea, the Decadents attempted to live their lives according to their concept of art. As a result, many of the leading artists of this movement lived decadent lifestyles, and were suspected of drug use and homosexuality. The reaction of the “Decadence” paralleled social changes that were occurring under the impetus of the women’s movement. While the Decadents criticized Victorian values, the women’s movement threatened to break down the entire Victorian social structure.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, widespread social changes began to alter the status of women in Victorian society. The first of these changes gave women broader legal protection. The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 extended the grounds for divorce, and was revised in 1878, to make divorce more affordable for women, and give them more custody rights. The Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870, 1874, and 1882 gave women the right to own and control property before and during marriage. Also, the school system was reformed so that women could have an education equal to that of men.
These legal changes were accompanied by alterations in women’s social and economic standing. Job reform gave women better training, benefits, standards, and working conditions. Teaching and nursing became women’s professions, and women also worked as secretaries, clerks, civil servants, lawyers, editors, journalists, and physicians. Women who worked helped to break down the Victorian stereotype of women as a weak domestic creature who must submit to her husband’s or her father’s will. By the 1890’s women began to take control over their own lives. Linda Zatlin describes the New Women of the 1890’s:
They married later and bore fewer children. They began to dress without constricting stays. They ate in restaurants without male companions, without fearing attacks on their reputations. They began to travel alone on bicycles, on the underground, on the railroad, for in doing so they were no longer assumed to be prostitutes.
There was much resistance to these changes, as many Victorians preferred to hold on to their traditional notions of a woman’s role. The debate over women’s place in society became especially turbulent in the 1890’s, when many men began to see the New Woman as a personal and a social threat. Victorian society had formed patriarchal institutions which were based on the premise that women were inferior and thus dependent on men. This notion of women also served to define men as the opposite of women. In other words, men were strong, rational, aggressive, and superior. Thus, because male superiority was contingent upon female inferiority in this system, it is easy to see how threatening to men the women’s movement could seem. Not only did men fear losing their superior status, but they were also anxious that the social changes for women could lead to female superiority. A Beardsley biographer Ian Fletcher writes, “The particular anxieties about the age may have been conscious and articulate, but the diffused, subconscious, and inarticulate anxieties could only express themselves through symbols.” In this case, Beardsley created a highly symbolic and interiorized world through which his art was a perfect vehicle for the illustration of these anxieties.
Throughout Beardsley’s short career, his art can be seen as an insightful criticism of the hypocrisies of Victorian society. Because of this, his drawings were criticized by mainstream artists, guardians of Victorian decency, and even his own colleagues. Most of these criticisms however, did not deal with the thematic content of Beardsley’s illustrations. Rather, they criticized his bizarre and grotesque style. In order to better understand this style we must examine Beardsley in the larger context of Art Nouveau.
Though Art Nouveau was an international movement, Fin de Siecle England played an important role in its development through the Arts and Crafts Movement and the “Decadence.” The Arts and Crafts Movement was founded by William Morris, who set up guild shops to produce handmade crafts of beauty and utility. In this movement, art was given a moral dimension, where the artist creates in order to better himself and his fellow humans. <11> The moralists of the Arts and Crafts Movement merged with the immoralists of the “Decadence” in a shared desire for artistic unity and new forms of artistic expression. The Arts and Crafts Movement was a reaction against the cheap imitations of craftsmanship that resulted from the mass production of goods, while the Decadents were tired of the imitation of nature and past artistic styles prevalent in mainstream Victorian art. Art Nouveau was also influenced by the Symbolist Movement, which rejected realism in art. The ultimate formulation of Art Nouveau came with the symbolism of the line, where “line became melodious, agitated, undulating flowing, flaming.” This aspect of Art Nouveau can be seen in the linear and symbolic qualities of Beardsley’s drawings. Other aspects of Art Nouveau which can be seen in Beardsley’s art include twodimensionality, decorative patterns, and exotic influences.
Beardsley’s first opportunity to make an impression on the art world came through his work with Oscar Wilde. Wilde was a writer, and one of the most influential members of the “Decadence.” Beardsley became associated with him when he agreed to do the illustrations for the English version of Wilde’s play, Salome. The plot, which revolved around sex, vice, and corruption, is similar to Beardsley’s illustrations in that both deal with a highly symbolic and self-created reality. Ian Fletcher claims that the Salome drawings are some of Beardsley’s finest work. He points out that of all of Beardsley’s drawings, they have had the most influence on subsequent artists and on the popular image of Beardsley. Nevertheless, these drawings were roundly criticized by Beardsley’s contemporaries. Even Wilde was not pleased with the drawings. He said, “I admire, I do not like Aubrey’s illustrations.” Mainstream artists and art critics ignored Beardsley’s explicit sexual themes, and denounced his aesthetics. The Times described the drawings as “unintelligible for the most part and, so long as they are unintelligible, repulsive.” From this point on, Beardsley was associated with Oscar Wilde in the public mind. As a result, he was not only criticized individually, but was also charged with Wilde’s offenses.
After his Salome illustrations had made him well known as one of the Decadents, Beardsley became the art editor of two Fin de Siecle literary magazines, first the Yellow Book, and then The Savoy. These periodicals offered him many opportunities for artistic expression and opened up new avenues for his social criticism. Beardsley worked on the first five issues of the Yellow Book, but was fired when his name became involved with the Wilde scandal.
In April of 1895, after withdrawing from a libel suit against the Marquess of Queensbury, Oscar Wilde was arrested on a charge of committing indecent acts, and the newspapers declared he was carrying a Yellow Book under his arm. Those who considered themselves guardians of Victorian decency, went to the Yellow Book Publishers and demanded to see Beardsley’s drawings. They found them upsetting, and pressured the publishers to relieve Beardsley as art editor. Beardsley was fired, but was then engaged as art editor for the Savoy.
Though he was dying of tuberculosis, Beardsley continued to feverishly turn out illustrations for the Savoy and other projects. Often violent hemorrhages would set him back, but as soon as he could hold a pen in his hand, he would continue his drawings. This creative energy stayed with him until he died in 1898, at the age of twenty-five.
A close analysis of Beardsley’s drawings reveal more than a witty and fantastic style. Because he was so intensely concerned about social issues, and particularly, the inequities and hypocrisies of Victorian society, his drawings not only critique Victorian vices, but support the breakdown of the patriarchal system. Many of Beardsley’s illustrations reveal a world where the “New Woman” is empowered with knowledge, free to expand her gender boundaries, and fully capable of experiencing a sexuality based on equality.
One of Beardsley’s underlying themes in his drawings is the depiction of vice in a male context. For Beardsley, vice was the male struggle for power. His drawings depict men who lust for wealth, men who attempt to corrupt other men intellectually, and men who use sexuality as a weapon in the struggle for dominance. In defending this aspect of his art, Beardsley said, “People hate to see their darting vices depicted [but] vice is terrible and it should be depicted.”